Sunday, July 4, 2021

Joel Lamangan | Aishite Imasu 1941 (愛しています) / Mahal Kita 1941 (I Love You)

betrayals

by Douglas Messerli

Ricardo Lee (screenplay) Joel Lamangan (director) Aishite Imasu 1941 (愛しています) / Mahal Kita 1941 (I Love You) / 2004

One of the very most interesting movies of the first decade of the new century was The Philippines historical wartime epic, Aishite Imasu 1941 (愛しています) / Mahal Kita 1941 (I Love You), directed by Joel Lamangan. Even the title testifies to the extraordinariness of this work about the Japanese invasion and occupation of The Philippines from 1941-1945 during World War II, presenting events of the small town San Nicholas as it does from multi-cultural viewpoints through Tagalog, Japanese, and English.

     The major figures of this story, Inya (Judy Ann Santos), Edilberto (Raymart Santiago), and Igancio “Igna” Basa (Dennis Trillo), the three growing up together, Edilberto falling in love with Inya and the community mocked homosexual youth, Ignacio, falling in love in what he recognizes will remain an unrequited relationship with Edilberto.

      Working as a tailor for his “Aunt,” a neighbor who has saved him from his father’s beatings, the beautiful effeminate Ignacio begins to move toward cross-dressing modeling some of the dresses he is asked to stitch. Ignacio has a lovely soprano voice and, accordingly, is often asked to sing, dressed as a female in town celebrations.

     As this film begins Inya and Edilberto are just about to be married and looking forward to beginning a new family. Igna is still a confused boy unable to comprehend his pulls toward femininity when suddenly, the day after Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the Japanese attack the Philippine cities Manila, Baguio, Davao, Iba, and the Clark airfields, bringing the war to the surprised populace which was still very much under US domination, and who believe that they will be immediately protected by American intervention. In fact, one of the major Japanese arguments early in their invasion is that as a fellow Asian nation they are in a better position to protect the Filipinos than were the colonialist Americans. 

     But at the early moments of the invasion, the townspeople of San Nicholas cannot even imagine that they might be worth Japanese attention. To create a sense of normalcy, the Mayor of the town  (Tony Mabesa) attempts to gather the citizens in an annual celebration of singing, dancing, and food. The lead singer, however, does not show up Ignacio, dressed up as a women in preparation for his own later performance, is asked to replace her, appearing on stage at the very moment when the new Japanese commander, Ichiru Hamaguchi (Jay Manolo) appears in an attempt to qualm the villagers fears about the occupation.

     Seeing and hearing Ignacio perform Ichiru immediately is attracted to Ignacio, seeking to find out who she is and how he might approach her parents. To avoid revealing that the beautiful young woman who arouses his love is, in fact, a young man, the Mayor quickly names her Inya, and after the event Ichiru visits the steamstress for whom Ignacio works to seek her permission to bring her back with him into Japanese headquarters, the major city figures as well as Inya, Edilberto, and others meet to determine that Ignacio must continue in women’s dress to perform as Inya, forming a relationship with the Japanese leader in order to spy on the intruding forces, feeding information back to an already forming group of Philippine guerilla fighters, one of whose major members is Edilberto.

      Seeing and hearing Ignacio perform Ichiru immediately is attracted to Ignacio, seeking to find out who she is and how he might approach her parents. To avoid revealing that the beautiful young woman who arouses his love is, in fact, a young man, the Mayor quickly names her Inya, and after the event Ichiru visits the steamstress for whom Ignacio works to seek her permission to bring her back with him into Japanese headquarters, the major city figures as well as Inya, Edilberto, and others meet to determine that Ignacio must continue in women’s dress to perform as Inya, forming a relationship with the Japanese leader in order to spy on the intruding forces, feeding information back to an already forming group of Philippine guerilla fighters, one of whose major members is Edilberto.

      At first the fearful Igna refuses, fearing not only that he will not be able to keep up the pretense, particularly if Ichiru should demand sexual activity, but also worried about the consequences, which surely would entail his death, if his spying activities were to be discovered. Yet the town leaders convince him that’s it necessary, and he’s soon taken into Ichiru’s circle, just as Edilberto leaves his new wife to join other villagers on the battlefield where they quite successfully take several Japanese soldier’s lives.

       Even though the whole city knows that Igna is not Inya, a boy not a woman even if he now looks like one, they all seem to participate in a kind of game of pretense, no one, not even the local mad street figure or the traitorous Maura (Angelu de Leon) dares to breathe the truth. Maura, a Filipino woman having spent a period of time in Japan, joins with the Japanese to communicate their orders to the townspeople and often to point out potential and likely rebels to the Japanese, who round them up and torture them, even if innocent, as a lesson to the larger community that all rebellion will be met with death.

       At one point she provides information about Captain Edilberto’s family which ends in the Japanese murdering his mother, father, and sisters; and at another, growing disturbed by Inya’s complete acceptance by the Japanese, reveals to one of Ichiru’s associaties that Inya is a man, but when he tells Ichiru, the Commander appears to disbelieve it and slaps the officer across his face in public for what he describes as a lie.

       Igna/Inya, in fact, does pass on information at one point to the underground, and a large number of Japanese soldiers are killed, but Ichiru’s lover soon discovers that she is not only become comfortable “performing” as a woman, but that she has begun to fall in love with her captor. But unlike David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Inya is no illusionist. And, in one of the most shocking moments of the film, after she attempts to delay Ichiru’s demand for sex, he admits that he has known from beginning that Inya is not a woman but a male with who he still desires sex and with whom he is in love. In short, he obviously is like many homosexual men who, unable to or disinterested in admitting his own sexual desires as a queer, chooses to have sex only with transgender men who identify as or feel that they are women.*

      The fact that he knows about and still loves her only intensifies Inya’s love for Ichiru, and the two now share an honesty among their themselves that was previously missing. Inya begins to inquire, for example, how such a loving man can continue to commit such brutal acts upon her own people.

      The other Inya also begins to question how Edilberto, a loving man before the war has now been consumed by his hatred of the Japanese, particularly after the brutal killings of his parents and siblings. But in the process she perceives, she has also lost his love. The baby she had was expecting dies in childbirth, and their second child, conceived after a long period of sexual distance between them due to war, is stillborn. Both men, fighting on opposite sides, argue that everything changes in war, and we observe that what they would never have imagined themselves doing in normal times, are horrendous actions upon which they now thrive.

      In fact, we begin to perceive that almost all the characters in this work have somehow been swept up into what others and even themselves define as betrayals. When Ignacio will no longer spy on her beloved Ichiru, she is perceived as having betrayed the Filipino cause, and Inya is told she can no longer have any contact with her former childhood friend—perhaps the only person remaining with whom she can share her grief over the death of her children and the loss of her husband’s love. Finally she is herself betrayed by her community as the guerrillas capture and torture Inya when they discover that she has disobeyed her Edilberto’s edict. 

      Hurt and angry over her punishment for crimes she has not committed, she, in turn, betrays Edilberto by refusing his love at the very moment when he is attempting to return to some sense of normalcy between them. Feeling feverous and begging to stay home from a guerrilla attack on that very day when Inya choses to reject his love, he returns to the battlefield to be killed after bravely attacking and routing an entire brigade of Japanese soldiers, who finally call on their air defense to help the few remaining soldiers to escape.

       Faced with her own deep grief over her husband’s death and her guilt for her part in it, Inya now becomes a guerilla warrior herself, rising quickly in the ranks due to her almost reckless attacks on the Japanese, to become the notorious Commander Berto.

       Fearful now that Ichiru’s Inya will reveal the true identity of the real Inya and her new identity of Berto, the townsfolk now turn on Ignacio, speaking out about the town “faggot’s” true sexuality to the Japanese, which leads to his immediate arrest and imprisonment, soon after followed by Ichiru’s forced release of command and imprisonment. Surely, his fellow soldiers reason, he must have known about his lover’s true sexuality and continued nonetheless with the relationship.

       Ichiru’s assistant commander, Akihiro (Marco Alcaraz), who himself has fallen in love and impregnated a local girl, helps them escape from prison. The two have nowhere to go but to the seamstresses’ home, where she temporarily hides them. There both Inyas meet up, Ignacio assuring Berto that he has never betrayed her, and Inya finally coming to realize how fully her former friend has fallen in love with the Japanese Commander.

       After the meeting, Inya and Ichiru reconfirm their love for one another, she revealing how she has betrayed him and he admitting that he knew even of that but loved her so much he helped to keep it secret, insisting that she must now escape at the very moment he begs her to leave him alone. In the room next to where she waits for what will surely be her recapture by the Japanese, Ichiru commits Seppuku, the Japanese ritual of suicide by disembowelment, while his cohort Akihiro slits his own throat. 

        Inya is recaptured, taken back to the prison, and horribly tortured through beatings, water dunking, being hung upside down, and other forms of unspeakable abuse. Commander Berto and her forces rush to the prison in an attempt to save her namesake, and finally are able to free Ichiru’s lover from the ropes as they carry her to the town plaza, where, at the very last moment, Inya/Ignacio is shot by Japanese forces who make one final futile attempt to control the town.

       Most of this sad tale of betrayals is told to the contemporary town fathers—who seek to memorialize the World War II heroes so that younger generations might remember them—by a now quite elderly Inya (Anita Linda) for whom such memorials no longer hold much meaning. All she has left of the past is the sad truth, finally revealing to the young woman who cares for her, that her grandmother was the young Filipino woman who bore Akihiro child, thus making the young girl half Japanese. 

       The generation of town elders is delighted to have discovered the history of San Nicholas’ heroes without quite recognizing the fact that in such a war there were no heroes in the traditional sense, that nearly everyone involved was motivated not only by national hatreds and decrees but by both learned and newly-discovered personal forces such as racism, homophobia, fear, guilt and perhaps primarily by the pulls of the heart. Strangely, only the queer couple Ichiru and Inya/Ignacio never betrayed their love.

Los Angeles, July 4, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (July 2021).

*This film, which functions through a series of doublings Inya/Inya, Ichiru/Akihiro, Edilberto/Berto, etc. also has another transgender figure, Edna, another seamstress who works with the young Ignacio, who we are told is really man who everyone simply treats as a female friend.

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